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The Small Town Affordability Factor: Community members and creative resources help address affordable housing needs

June 7, 2013

Although far from the high-priced big cities, rural communities and small towns have their own challenges in providing affordable housing options. Now, leadership in small towns and rural areas is moving ahead on innovative ways to provide affordable housing opportunities.

A Community Partner Helps Create Affordable Housing

Brattleboro, Vermont is known for many things. Situated in Windham County Vermont, it has been described as eclectic and arty. It’s situated near world-class ski resorts and is home to the SIT Graduate Institute.

In 2007, Mother Earth Magazine called out the area as one of the “Eight Great Places You Never Heard Of.”

Brattleboro’s secret was revealed, though, when a $12-million renovation of Brattleboro Food Co-Op from a strip mall location to a mixed-use, street-facing development with commercial space, offices and 24 apartments, received the 2012 National Award for Smart Growth, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The redevelopment project, a collaborative effort of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Housing Vermont, edged out 46 other entrants from 25 states. It was recognized in the Main Street or Corridor Revitalization category.

Sabine Rhyne is the shareholder and community relations manager at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, a communityowned natural foods market in downtown Brattleboro. The co-op, which now has about 10,000 shareholders, started 38 years ago in a basement in Brattleboro.

“Co-ops exist all over the country and in fact all over the world as a way for individuals to band together to get their needs met,” she said. “There are a few principles that they use that mean that they are, by nature, a value-based business. Particularly one of these principles is concern for community.”

As the co-operative burgeoned over 30 years and outgrew its downtown location the shareholders had to decide whether to move out of the space into larger accommodations that were less expensive, but not centrally located, or stay downtown.

Rhyne said it was the sense of “community” that convinced co-operative shareholders that the grocery store needed to remain a downtown anchor. When the land came up for sale the Brattleboro Food Co-Op bought it and partnered with Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Housing Vermont to offer rental housing options. Given the lack of affordable, vacant rentals downtown, 24 apartments would substantially increase the area’s stock.

The massive redevelopment process, which included moving the co-op from a flood plain and adding a green buffer, and construction of the four-story building, took two years to complete.

Brattleboro Food Co-Op owns the first two floors of the building and the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Housing Vermont own the top two floors where the apartments are rented. The building has green features, including a mechanical system that captures the heat that is produced by the co-op’s refrigeration equipment. The excess heat the equipment puts off is captured and used to heat the entire building.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, one of five homeownership trusts in Vermont, sponsors a number of programs to meet the needs of low-income and moderate- income residents in Vermont. The housing trust is increasing its reach to areas surrounding Brattleboro, which is small, but one of the county’s most populous towns. Windham & Windsor has helped provide affordable housing options for other small Vermont towns in the area such as the village of Whitingham with the renovation of the Sadawaga Springs Hotel, where nine reasonably priced apartments were created. The trust also has programs in West Dover and in Guilford.

Don’t Forget the Affordable Needs of Rural America

In the Midwest, the Hays Board of REALTORS® is playing a part in the push for more affordable housing options in the city of Hays in western Kansas. Hays may be a small city, but it is a growing small city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s population has grown by a whopping 30 percent in the last 40 years. Much of that growth can be attributed to three groups — students attending Fort Hays State University (FHSU), retirees relocating to Hays and well-paid young professionals moving to town to work in healthcare and education. These groups may be diverse in many respects, but they often share a need for affordable housing. The Hays Board of REALTORS® decided a detailed housing study was the best starting point in assuring that the city’s current and future housing needs would be met.

The Hays Board of REALTORS® received a $2,000 Housing Opportunity Program Grant from the NATIONAL

ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® in May 2012 to help fund a survey of the community’s housing needs. The Ellis County Economic Development Board also contributed $1,000 toward the assessment, which was conducted by RDG Planning & Design. RDG Planning & Design already was working with the city of Hays on a housing analysis, but the NAR grant allowed the analysis to be expanded.

The Hays Board of REALTORS® was one of 19 states and local organizations in May 2012 to be awarded a Housing Opportunity Program grant from NAR. The grants are made available to programs aimed at promoting and expanding affordable housing opportunities in communities across the nation.

The housing analysis indicated that nearly a third (31%) of Hays households earn less than $25,000 a year and there was a significant need for housing for low- or moderate-income households. The housing analysis also showed that the median income for the city of Hays is $44,277 annually, but the median home value is $137,400. That translates to a value to income ratio of 3:11. The U.S. Census Bureau says any ratio above 3 indicates “significant affordability issues.”

A survey conducted as part of the housing study affirmed the need for adequate and diverse housing. Survey respondents identified the cost of housing to income as the most important issue facing Hays in the next 10 years.

And the market isn’t fixing itself. Lyn Klein, owner/broker of Advanced Real Estate Company P.A. has seen a lot of changes in Hays since he graduated from FHSU approximately 40 years ago. For Klein, time is of the essence because the home affordability issue is precluding manufacturers from expanding in the Hays area, knowing that the workers they need to hire for the jobs wouldn’t be able to afford a house. Additionally the area has increased pressures from students who are seeking housing. Students have been seeking off campus housing in greater numbers since the university demolished some of its dorms.

Klein has used the survey to start a conversation with city officials, property owners, landlords, developers and FHSU officials about investment and restoring affordable housing opportunities for the city of Hays. The survey identified a Core to Campus Corridor that could provide affordable housing options that were walkable and connected to campus, downtown and the 27th and Hall Street shopping area.

Strategic directions recommended by the housing analysis included preserving existing housing while constructing new options, development of a range of affordable housing choices and ensuring that housing development addressed infrastructure and transportation needs. The key is, Klein said, that stakeholders must work on developing the best use of land for additional housing needs. The analysis identified several opportunities.

“It’s time we do look at these opportunities and see if we need to do something different as a city,” said REALTOR® Lyn Klein.

A Neighborhood Revitalization Program could provide land use options that would protect neighborhood integrity. Rehabilitation funds from various sources and tax rebates could be used for improvements to existing property or for needed infill.

Another of those options could be the development of a Rural Housing Incentive District in Hays. Rural Housing Incentive Districts were approved by the state of Kansas as a way to help increase access to safe affordable housing. The program is designed to aid development by assisting the financing of public improvements. Cities may issue special obligation bonds to fund acquisition, relocation assistance, site preparation, sanitary and storm sewer improvements, street improvements, lighting, utility work within the public right-of-way or sidewalks.

The designation of a Rural Housing Incentive District in Hays would be an important step in the development of adequate affordable housing for Hays’ diverse and growing population. Hays ideally fits the criteria for a district. Districts can only be developed in any city with less than 40,000 residents in any Kansas County with less than 60,000 people. Additionally, Rural Housing Incentive Districts also are available to Kansas counties with populations of less than 40,000 people.

As the Hays community moves forward with analysis recommendations, local REALTORS®, as members of the Planning Committee, will play pivotal roles in helping meet future affordable housing needs in their city. It’s the type of leadership small cities depend on. And in Hays, the housing analysis has provided an essential tool in understanding current realities and future needs and in identifying workable solutions.